This week, I am reflecting on the funny paths we take to look like we knew it all along.
I met a wonderful person this past week. We told our stories to each other. That happens many times a week: introductions, and then the canned narratives about our respective genius. But this time was different. He shared that he had grown tired of telling the marketing version of his successes. “It’s so easy to make up a story where it looks like everything I have done in my life has been a series of wise, purposeful decisions along a successful career path. But that just isn’t true. Mostly it’s been accidents that add up to success.”
(A new way I am going to think about privilege: being a part of a system where my mistakes work for me as well as my successes. Not many people can say that.)
His courage and vulnerability were infectious. I decided to share the reality of the Talentism origin story.
My origin story is usually told like this: I took a conscious twist in my career when I moved from being an entrepreneur to working inside a Fortune 500 company. I had become obsessed with questions about potential, people, and business. I decided to go to a big company so I could get the resources, space, and time needed to figure out a magical insight that everyone was missing.
That feels true. It’s the way I remember it. But like most memories about success and virtue, it is like post hoc, ergo propter hoc thinking. The story is true, but it is incomplete. The more visceral experience was that I had two great offers on the table: go work inside a big company or go be a senior exec at a startup. I chose the big company, because my kids needed braces and the big company had a better dental plan.
Even at that time, this seemed a bad reason to make a big career decision. So I created a narrative around it, about wanting to figure out more about this people-at-work problem that had been itching the back of my brain for decades. Again, that’s all true. But the real impetus for my decision was that braces are expensive.
Sitting here today, I can’t imagine how I could have succeeded to the degree I have if my kids hadn’t had crooked teeth. I learned so much working at Electronic Arts, and the two large institutions after that. Making that choice, for whatever mundane reason I did, was a key to unlocking my potential.
In our deterministic achiever world, we have come to believe that rationally choosing goals is the only way to accomplish big things. We evaluate all the options, pick the best one, and then structure a plan to get there. We apply grit and determination and eventually succeed. Failure to follow this playbook is evidence of a lack of character, intelligence, or motivation. Goals become lighthouses, unmoving and stable in the storm of our daily work. Winners pick the right lighthouses and never, ever lose sight of them. Failure to follow this exactly means you will surely crash into the rocks of failure. It’s all very orderly and mechanistic.
It doesn’t matter whether you are an individual or an enterprise. Consciously picking the right goals and never wavering from their pursuit is what separates winners from losers.
My experience is that it’s mostly bullshit. Sometimes kids need braces. You gotta play the ball where it lies.
Not all goals are available to all people at all times. I am 58. I won’t be drafted into the NBA. But even if it made sense to set that goal and work with grit and diligence to achieve it, one would be left to wonder: why? What other goals would I have left behind? What talents would I have left unexplored? I would have been a nobody in the NBA. But I am a somebody at Talentism.
Often the road less traveled is the road you stumble upon. What emerges is better than what is available on the map.
I always suspected that my true north was some combination of systems and people potential. I always knew that I was more entrepreneur and contrarian than what would likely enable me to be a successful business person. I really, truly had no idea what to do with all of that. But thankfully, my kids needed braces. And that was the key to unleashing my potential.
–Jeff Hunter, Founder & CEO